Talking Circles: Honoring the Collective Voice

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“Everything that an Indian does is in a circle, because the power of the world always works in a circle, and everything tries to be round. The sky is round, and the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for their religion is the same as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.”

~ Black Elk

I’ve been asked by a new client, The Banyan Community, to conduct a series of talking circles with the parents and children whom they serve. The mission of the Banyan Community, which is based in Minneapolis’s Phillips neighborhood, is to transform lives by developing youth, strengthening families, and creating community.

They’ve had tremendous success improving student test scores, increasing high school graduation rates, and enhancing community connections, as evidenced by the numerous evaluations they’ve done over the years.  But their data gathering techniques have primarily consisted of surveys and focus groups. And while Banyan has had no problem documenting their successes to funders, they wanted to determine if they could collect information in a different way, and possibly garner new insights. To that end, we talked about the possibility of using talking circles.


The circle is an important symbol and concept in an Indigenous worldview. Talking circles, a traditional practice in many indigenous communities, offers a safe, non-hierarchical way of discussing an issue.  I’m often asked how, in the context of a traditional, facilitated session, I will help to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to share. This is a significant benefit of talking circles, which focus on togetherness, ideas and honoring different perspectives.

The process involves use of a talking piece, which is passed around the circle from speaker to speaker. Only the person who holds the talking piece can speak, while others around the circle listen attentively and without judgment. The progression often begins with an introduction of the history, purpose and ground rules of the circle. The talking piece is then passed around the circle three times, once for each query.  Participants have an opportunity to speak when it’s their turn, but they don’t have to if they don’t want to. You can then choose to offer an open dialogue without the talking piece.[1]

Many of the families that Banyan Community serves are from communities of color. I’m interested to see if use of this culturally grounded practice yields new and helpful insights to the organization and its stakeholders.

[1] Talking Circles, Mark S. Umbreit, Ph.D., Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking, School of Social Work, University of Minnesota St. Paul, Minnesota, Aug. 2004.